Our spouses, our parents, and our children are often the first lines of defense against challenges in life. We lean on them as we navigate our first jobs or raise funds for a new home. We ask them for help when we fall ill. When their help is not enough, we turn to public safety nets provided by schools, hospitals, and government programs. However, these safety nets are grossly inadequate to catch the vulnerable. What is more, the family support system is threatened by growing divorce, single parenthood, and poor health among vulnerable populations.
Getting and staying married is becoming a phenomenon of the upper classes. People with less education and less income are increasingly opting to forgo marriage. Instead, they often enter parenthood alone or within cohabiting relationships that are unstable with few legal protections. The divorce rate, while on the decline for upper-class families, is still at a historical high among couples with the least education.
The family support system weakens when parents become estranged. They are less likely to respond to last-minute requests to babysit the grandchildren and are less able to help with the down payment on a new house. Adult children of estranged parents find themselves juggling the needs of two separate parents, especially as they grow elderly and frail. In the case of many adults who grew up with single mothers, contact with and support from fathers become limited.
Adults in disadvantaged families also lose family members to illness and death sooner. Health and life expectancies have improved markedly for the US population as a whole, but these improvements are lagging in populations that have the least. The family safety net frays with each new disability and death.
New research starkly shows the weakening of the family support system among families with the fewest resources. In 1988, adults with low socioeconomic status (SES) had parents who were married to each other for an average of 11.5 of the years during which the adult children were 25 to 50 years old. In 2013, those same low SES adults had parents who were married to each other for an average of only 6.3 of the 25 years.
Higher SES adult children, on the other hand, had parents who were married to each other for an average of more than 13 of the years during which the adult children were 25 to 50 years old, in both 1988 and 2013. Their parents too experience divorce more often than before, but increases in the parents’ life expectancies offset any impact on the total years with surviving and married parents.
The period between the ages of 25 and 50 is important, because adult children are balancing the demands of new careers and young families. Many adult children purchase first homes, and some experience the hardships of divorce. The family network during this critical life period has frayed primarily due to large increases in single parenthood and divorce among the older generation of low SES families.
Unequal life expectancies and rates of single parenthood are creating fundamentally disparate kin network structures between people with different social statuses. The research suggests that the diverging kin structures may increasingly impact chances for mobility across generations, blocking upward mobility for disadvantaged families and helping advantaged families retain their high status.
Policymakers must explicitly acknowledge and address the layered disadvantage stemming from unequal family support networks. Our current public systems rely too heavily on the presence, engagement, and resources of family members, ignoring the unequal family environments that people are embedded in.
Schools invite parents to be active participants in their children’s education. Elementary schools raise operating funds from parents. Colleges welcome parents who can provide professional advice and employment opportunities for their children. In doing so, these institutions perpetuate inequalities between children who have well-resourced parents and children who do not.
Health insurance, particularly private employment-based insurance, caters to neat nuclear families with a stable breadwinner who provides the insurance plan.
What happened when the Great Recession forced many breadwinners into unemployment? For the most part, upper-class married couples maintained coverage by switching coverage between spouses. Failed by public insurance options, a large proportion of lower-class families lost coverage, exposing themselves and their dependents to the economic risks of living without health insurance.
The popular Young Adult Dependent Coverage Mandate extended the time young adults could be insured by parents’ plans. This mandate only benefitted those with parents who had private coverage to share. Struggling young adults who do not have access to family resources were left at the mercy of their states’ Medicaid eligibility rules that have contracted and expanded from one administration to the next.
Even our health care system puts a disproportionate burden on family members to coordinate and manage care for the sick. Families whose responsibilities are stretched thin across work and caregiving will likely struggle. These families cannot afford to purchase caregiving assistance, which results in missing work, forgoing further education, or neglecting social participation.
The next generation of Americans will grow up in even more complex and unstable families. More than forty percent of babies born in 2014 were born to unmarried mothers. These parents have difficulties providing strong safety nets for their children as they navigate through increasingly uncertain paths to adulthood and independence.
The landscape of American families has changed considerably since many current social policies were put in place. Ongoing trends in marriage, childbearing, and healthy life expectancies expose those who are already economically vulnerable to greater instability.
The assumption of a strong family support system is increasingly outdated. Policies that rely on this assumption have grave consequences for a very large part of the population. Such policies advantage those who are already ahead while leaving the rest further behind and feeding ever-growing socioeconomic inequality in the United States.
Heeju Sohn, “Fraying Families: Demographic Divergence in the Parental Safety Net,” Demography 2019.
Image: Ali Eminov via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)